Charles Rosenberg - Legal Thriller
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Hanging a Flag on It
by Charles Rosenberg
Writing my legal thriller, Death on a High Floor, confronted me with this question: Am I going to practice what I preach? That question presented itself because, for more than twenty years, I had been the credited legal script consultant to four TV legal dramas—Paperchase, LA Law, The Practice and Boston Legal. In that role, I was the high priest of accuracy, working with writers and producers to help them bring legal accuracy to the scripts without killing off the drama.
That was always a difficult balancing act because reality, depicted with verisimilitude, is too complicated, too long-winded, and too filled with boring moments to make great drama. Most writers would agree, though, that you can’t just shove reality totally under the rug. Audiences are not stupid, and if you do that, they will quickly desert you. Indeed, making the characters in the drama confront reality in some form, albeit stripped of its boring length and detail, will always make the drama better.
Sometimes, though, drama and verisimilitude just won’t mix at all. Here’s an example from my experience with TV: In a courtroom drama, it can create a dramatic high point if a lawyer and the opposing client meet one-on-one (preferably in a small room), and go at it. Verbal fireworks ensue, and the emotional conflict at the heart of the drama is made manifest. The problem with that? Well, in litigation it’s flatly unethical for a lawyer to meet with the other lawyer’s client without the other lawyer’s consent, and what lawyer in her right mind is going to consent? One solution, of course, would be to include the second lawyer in the scene. But that changes everything. The second lawyer, now intruded into the scene, can’t just stand there and say nothing. So the inevitable result would be to water down the one-on-one confrontation that the writer was originally seeking.
In that situation, of course, reality always bent to the needs of drama (this was TV after all), and the opposing lawyer never made it into the scene. But there was a fix of sorts. We could “hang a flag on it,” as we used to say. The scene might be rewritten with something like the following exchange:
(Speaking to the opposing lawyer)
I want to talk to you. Right now.
That would be unethical. You’re represented by counsel. So no can do.
I just fired my lawyer.
With that exchange, the writers get to set up the one-one-one scene they really want, but the audience is made aware that what they are watching is not quite business as usual, along with a mini-lesson in real world legal ethics.
I occasionally confronted similar problems in writing Death on a High Floor. For example, at one point in the novel, someone is charged with the murder with which the novel opens (I won’t say who, since it would spoil the plot). In the normal course, the person, once charged, would be arraigned before a judge and have to plead guilty or not guilty. But for reasons of pacing and tone, and perhaps a bit of writerly sloth on my part, I didn’t want to drag the defendant down to the courthouse to be arraigned. It would have been a lengthy scene, with multiple characters appearing (including the judge, whom I preferred to introduce more dramatically in a later scene). A solution popped into my head: “Maybe it can be done from the defendant’s home, via video. That would be a much easier, quicker scene to write.” But when I researched that idea, I ran into a dead end. The judge, for historical and practical reasons, needs to see the body of the defendant in court. It couldn’t be done via video from the defendant’s home.
The solution? Do it the way I wanted to do it, but hang a flag on it for the audience, just as I had learned to do in TV. Here’s how it ended up, with a few words changed so as not to spoil the plot. It’s spoken in the voice of the defendant:
The only break in my routine occurred one day when some very official looking people brought a video camera setup into my living room. Someone told me it was to be my arraignment, hi-tech style. I put on a set of headphones and listened to a judge ask how I wished to plead. I looked into the camera and pleaded “not guilty.” Then I listened to the judge say a bunch of mumbo jumbo and set a date for the preliminary hearing.
My lawyer later told me it was a first. That no one else had ever been arraigned remotely at home. That, in fact, it couldn’t legally be done that way. But somehow . . . it had been arranged with the judge. . . .
So, in essence, I did it “wrong” but hung a flag on it for the reader. Twenty years of television consulting had taught me a trick or two.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles B. (”Chuck”) Rosenberg has been the credited legal script consultant to three prime time television shows: L.A. Law, The Practice and Boston Legal, as well as The Paper Chase (Showtime). During the O .J. Simpson criminal trial, he was one of two on-air legal analysts for E! Entertainment Television’s live coverage of the trial. He also provided commentary for E!’s coverage of the Simpson civil trial. He is also the author of the book The Trial of O.J. Simpson: How to Watch the Trial and Understand What’s Really Going On (Publishing Partners 1994) and is a contributing author to the book Lawyers in Your Living Room! Law on Television (ABA Publishing 2009).
He has taught extensively as an adjunct law professor, including at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, the Loyola Law School International LLM Program in Bologna, Italy, the UCLA School of Law, the Pepperdine School of Law, and the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA.
A graduate of the Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, Chuck currently practices in the Los Angeles area. He has been a partner in several law firms, including a large international firm. Currently, he is a partner in a three-lawyer firm. Chuck and his wife have lived in Los Angeles since the early 1970s. He is at work on a second novel.
His latest novel is Death on a High Floor.
Visit his blog at http://charlesrosenberg.wordpress.com. Connect with him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=820177073.
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